Interdecadal Changes in El Niño Onset in the Last Four Decades

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  • 1 Department of Meteorology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii
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Abstract

The characteristics of the onset of the Pacific basin-wide warming have experienced notable changes since the late 1970s. The changes are caused by a concurrent change in the background state on which El Niño evolves.

For the most significant warm episodes before the late 1970s (1957, 1965, and 1972), the atmospheric anomalies in the onset phase (November to December of the year preceding the El Niño) were characterized by a giant anomalous cyclone over east Australia whose eastward movement brought anomalous westerlies into the western equatorial Pacific, causing development of the basin-wide warming. Meanwhile, the trades in the southeastern Pacific (20°S–0°, 125°–95°W) relaxed back to their weakest stage, resulting in a South American coastal warming, which led the central Pacific warming by about three seasons. Conversely, in the warm episodes after the late 1970s (1982, 1986–87, and 1991), the onset phase was characterized by an anomalous cyclone over the Philippine Sea whose intensification established anomalous westerlies in the western equatorial Pacific. Concurrently, the trades were enhanced in the southeastern Pacific, so that the coastal warming off Ecuador occurred after the central Pacific warming.

It is found that the atmospheric anomalies occurring in the onset phase are controlled by background SSTs that exhibit a significant secular variation. In the late 1970s, the tropical Pacific between 20°S and 20°N experienced an abrupt interdecadal warming, concurrent with a cooling in the extratropical North Pacific and South Pacific and a deepening of the Aleutian Low. The interdecadal change of the background state affected El Niño onset by altering the formation of the onset cyclone and equatorial westerly anomalies and through changing the trades in the southeast Pacific, which determine whether a South American coastal warming leads or follows the warming at the central equatorial Pacific.

Abstract

The characteristics of the onset of the Pacific basin-wide warming have experienced notable changes since the late 1970s. The changes are caused by a concurrent change in the background state on which El Niño evolves.

For the most significant warm episodes before the late 1970s (1957, 1965, and 1972), the atmospheric anomalies in the onset phase (November to December of the year preceding the El Niño) were characterized by a giant anomalous cyclone over east Australia whose eastward movement brought anomalous westerlies into the western equatorial Pacific, causing development of the basin-wide warming. Meanwhile, the trades in the southeastern Pacific (20°S–0°, 125°–95°W) relaxed back to their weakest stage, resulting in a South American coastal warming, which led the central Pacific warming by about three seasons. Conversely, in the warm episodes after the late 1970s (1982, 1986–87, and 1991), the onset phase was characterized by an anomalous cyclone over the Philippine Sea whose intensification established anomalous westerlies in the western equatorial Pacific. Concurrently, the trades were enhanced in the southeastern Pacific, so that the coastal warming off Ecuador occurred after the central Pacific warming.

It is found that the atmospheric anomalies occurring in the onset phase are controlled by background SSTs that exhibit a significant secular variation. In the late 1970s, the tropical Pacific between 20°S and 20°N experienced an abrupt interdecadal warming, concurrent with a cooling in the extratropical North Pacific and South Pacific and a deepening of the Aleutian Low. The interdecadal change of the background state affected El Niño onset by altering the formation of the onset cyclone and equatorial westerly anomalies and through changing the trades in the southeast Pacific, which determine whether a South American coastal warming leads or follows the warming at the central equatorial Pacific.

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